Have you ever hired a photographer for an event or a project but then asked them to give you the raw files as well. Pretty sure that would have prompted a very, very awkward conversation.
In the world of professional photography, there are a few unwritten rules (in some instances, they are clearly and boldly written as well), certain lines that both photographers and clients are not supposed to cross. Sexual harassment, blackmail, getting into a gear bragging match, changing the project's goalposts after the fact, and asking photographers for raw files after the project is complete.
There is nothing that photographers hate more than a client asking for the raw files they have taken. Their reasons are simple and the result of sound reasoning.
Ask any professional photographer how many times they have been asked by clients to transfer the raw files and they will let out a long sigh before rattling off a long list of clients who asked for the pictures or they entered a tense standoff of who blinks first on the matter to
how some photographers have started including a clause in their arguments that "raw files will not be provided".
Photographers explain that the core concept of not providing raw files is not new and goes back to the days when photographs used to be shot on films. Exposed and developed, negative films used to be stored carefully by photographers unless clients wanted repeat prints or any other adjustments to their photographs.
Today, the digital raw and uncompressed files are still viewed with the same lens by photographers, sort of.
Essentially, photographers consider any photo they take to be their intellectual property, even if they took the photos which were commissioned or paid for by a client. With modern software such as Adobe and digital fingerprinting of content, it becomes even more complicated to simply share raw image files with clients to do with them as they please.
Some photographers view that the photos they take are their property and that the client is privileged to have access to the final images only - i.e. what the client really paid for. This is why a myth has been created that it is rude to ask a photographer for raw files.
This brings us to the second point that photographers almost always have to digitally process each photograph before they can deliver it to the client – at times even for just a preliminary review.
Have you ever seen a photograph that has just come straight from the camera? Once you have shot a photograph on your camera and reviewed it on the tiny screen given on the back of every camera, you may feel that the shot is great and everything was covered. That is until you get back to your office, take out the memory card and load it onto your computer and open the files on your large, calibrated monitor and you gasp in horror at the images staring back at you. You wonder just what has happened to the beautiful images which you had shot and which still look perfect on the screen of your camera.
The reason is that when you see raw and uncompressed images, even perfectly shot and lit images appear a little washed out. This isn’t a flaw, rather, it is a feature of raw photos. Raw photos contain all the raw information of a scene when shooting a photograph – from all the lights to the darks, not just what you thought you were exposing for. This is why editing a raw image gives you the most options during editing.
Due to the increased role played by post-processing in the photographic process and the implementation of certain stylistic inputs which form a bit of the distinctive creative fingerprint for each photographer and media house.
Photographers also want to hold on to the raw files in case the clients do not like the editing of the photos and want them redone a different way with a different tone and look. Having the raw files allows photographers the freedom to do those changes.
Moreover, when shooting and editing a photograph, photographers may have a certain vision for what the final image would look like, something the client may not necessarily have access to even if they possess the requisite tools and capability to edit the image but may not be able fully to recreate the final look as intended by the photographer. This could result in a dissatisfying result and experience.
For commissioned work, oftentimes photographers need to process each image for removing certain unavoidable or professional blemishes – like part of propping stands - before sending images to the client. This happens the most when photographers are recreating
composite images from a sequence of shots – like shooting the moon or other night shots or even when shooting products.
If raw images for such photographs are provided, photographers argue, it would serve no purpose for the client as these images are shot with a certain purpose and with a plan not contained within the photographs. Furthermore, if they were to just hand over the raw files,
they would have wasted a lot of the time and effort which goes into sorting out the best images and editing them together.
Photographers are also afraid that by sharing the original raw files, these files may get leaked to the public or get treated in a way that was not intended which would not only reflect badly on the photographer but also on the client as people on the internet have a habit of taking images and manipulating them. Don’t believe me, just visit any website which is a meme vault and you will understand what I am talking about.
Then for bigger photographers, this can lead to a potential loss of business.
Size and transferability are also major issues. Today, photographers store photos on digital disks or other digital storage devices for a set time before removing them. They add that over the years, due to the development of digital photography, cameras, and formats, raw files can only be read by specialized software. They are then carefully cataloged and stored over multiple devices to not lose them in case of drive failure.
Not to mention that raw format or uncompressed files have a rather substantial disk size, which means that you can’t simply copy them over to a thumb drive and transfer them to clients. Even a WeTransfer or any other cloud transfer format is highly unfeasible – to first upload and then for the client to download all of them.
This segment will undoubtedly draw a lot of hate from the professional photography community but it is there for anyone who has a genuine need for the raw files but does not wish to offend the client.
First, there is no concrete universal rule against asking a photographer for the raw image files or for the photographer to deny you access to them.
To avoid a conflict, perhaps this is what you can do:
Talk to the photographer and explain to them your genuine reason to acquire the raw files and what your long-term intentions are. Convince them and you may just be able to get what you are looking for.
Sometimes, photographers cling on too strongly to an irrational fear that by giving up the raw images they will lose clients or allow an embarrassing look behind the curtain of how they do work and invite undue criticism about their process which they may still be working on. It helps to address these fears of photographers when asking them for their raw files.
Given that photographers look at raw images as their intellectual assets, they may sometimes be willing to let go of the raw files for a fee. It may seem that it is a bit much if the photographer is charging extra for files of the same images which you have paid for but from their perspective, they may be giving up their intellectual property, and that too is not so cheap.
For the photographers reading this blog and thinking about how much should they charge for raw files, frankly, there is no right answer. It depends on how much you value them or how much you value your client. It is completely up to you how much you charge, absolutely nothing or a thousand for each image.
I hope this blog was helpful for you if you ever wanted raw files of a shoot but were either too scared to ask the photographer or had asked and felt you had offended a photographer or just thought you would come across as rude.
Also, if you want raw files of some photographs to be taken by people to practice your editing, you can always find a lot of photographers literally giving away their files and their editing process to a photo editor of your choice for free on the internet without having to ask them for it and get into that awkward conversation.